- What causes the hangover?
- Supplements to avoid a hangover
- Prior to drinking
- During Drinking
- Before Bed
- The next day
- What about Hangover “multivitamins?”
- The Genetics of alcohol metabolism
- Practical Considerations
Note: there isn’t a supplement regimen out there that is going to protect you from a hangover if you abuse alcohol. I have certainly done my fair share of partying, so no judgment, but going 7,8,9 plus rounds deep is going to give you a hangover, almost without exception. This post is designed for people who feel off their game after a night of social drinking and are looking for a boost to mitigate those effects, not as a “hall pass” for consuming huge quantities of alcohol. Stuff happens, but when it does, a hangover is going to follow. However, if you ordered that extra glass of wine after polishing a nice bottle with dinner, or maybe you got into the grappa after a few Manhattans, this is the type of post that may have some value for you. As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement, and if you do try any of the supplements listed here, start with one at a time, and with a low dose so you can see how your body reacts. With that said, on to the post.
Since I began working in health and wellness, I have cut way back on alcohol, however, I still like to “knock a few back” every so often. In fact, this past weekend, I attended a charity event and had some drinks. In this case, it was a particularly bad pairing of gin and tonics and red wine.
But, believe it or not, I felt fine the next day. Perhaps a little groggy, but not in any pain.
So, what did I turn to in my supplement cabinet to mitigate the impact of all that alcohol and avoid the dreaded hangover?
What causes the hangover?
Before we delve into the supplement angle, let’s take a quick look at the metabolic processes that cause hangovers.
When our bodies metabolize alcohol, a substance known as acetaldehyde is produced as a byproduct. Acetaldehyde is toxic, even more so than alcohol, and our bodies have to use large amounts of glutathione (our most powerful natural antioxidant) to clear the stuff.
For more on glutathione, see: Supplementing with glutathione: what you need to know
Consuming multiple drinks in one night has the potential to overload the liver with the toxic acetaldehyde, and deplete glutathione levels as a result.
The bottom line for this article is that regularly drinking alcohol puts a toxic load on the body. Acetaldehyde weakens the immune system and is a known carcinogen. Interestingly, it’s also produced by Candida overgrowth, which is why those with gut issues can have more severe hangovers than the rest of us.
Drinking alcohol loads up the liver with toxins it has to work hard to clear, and in so doing draws down on our stores of “endogenous” antioxidants, leaving us more susceptible to the free radicals produced by all that booze.1
With that out of the way for important context, let’s dive into the substances (aside from drinking a ton of water) I take to counteract these effects.
Supplements to avoid a hangover
|N-acetyl-cysteine||Before consuming alcohol||Restores glutathione (while alcohol depletes it); may protect the liver if taken before drinking per animal studies|
|L-theanine||Before consuming alcohol||Increases feel-good brain waves and helps the body produce glutathione, which our livers need before partying|
|Vitamin D||Before consuming alcohol||Boosts the immune system ahead of alcohol use (which has toxic byproducts that weaken the immune system)|
|Buffered Vitamin C||During alcohol consumption||Effective antioxidant that also raises glutathione levels|
|Prophylite clay and activated charcoal||Before bed after a night of drinking||May help absorb alcohol toxins like acetaldehyde; be careful of timing with other supplements|
|Magnesium||Before bed after a night of drinking||Restores magnesium, which is lost at an alarming rate during alcohol consumption; crucial to energy production and sleep regulation|
|Methyl B Vitamin Complex||Before bed after a night of drinking||Restores B vitamins lost during drinking|
|Potassium citrate||Before bed after a night of drinking||Helps restore potassium lost during drinking and reduce acidity of alcohol; particularly helpful for women with recurrent UTIs or men with kidney stones|
|Digestive enzymes||Before bed after a night of drinking||Good if you've eaten junk food before bed to help break down all those nutrients in the pizza you scarfed|
|Curcumin||The day after alcohol consumption||Good alternative to aspirin as an anti-inflammatory, but should not take during drinking|
Prior to drinking
Remember the choose your own story books from childhood? No? Ok, it doesn’t matter, but there is a fork in the road right away here. Because charcoal may eat up all the NAC in your system, you may want to either take the NAC prior to drinking or the activated charcoal when you are done, but not take both together.2 If you know you don’t do well with NAC, then it will be the charcoal. Or if charcoal has never been your thing, you will go with the NAC, you get the idea.
The study I cite above is far from conclusive, so you may also find that both charcoal and NAC work for you if you take them far enough apart.
N-acetyl-cysteine, or “NAC” is a supplement that many are confused by. They know it’s a glutathione precursor, but what they don’t get is that NAC is only effective for glutathione restoration, not maintenance.3 In other words, NAC is a great supplement to take if you’ve run your glutathione levels down, as you will have after a night of drinking, or even an intense workout, but you won’t get the same benefit it your glutathione levels are in the normal range.
Because alcohol depletes glutathione, I add 500mg of NAC to my before drinking regimen as it’s probably the most effective supplement for restoring glutathione levels and helping out our poor liver in the process. In the comments, readers turned me on to a study in mice that sheds light on the timing of taking NAC when we’re planning on having some drinks. That study showed that NAC had protective effects on the liver when taken before drinking, but accelerated liver damage when taken after drinking.
Now, it’s important to keep in mimd that this was a study in mice where the mice were given mega doses of straight ethanol, so we can’t say for sure that there is any application for humans. Having said that, it’s enough for me to add NAC as a pre-drinking supplement. After having a conversation with your doctor or go to health care professional to make sure it’s safe for you, you could try anywhere between 250-500mg with food about 30 minutes before drinking. Because of the mouse study I cite to above, you may want to think twice taking NAC before bed after a night of drinking. I would put a Science Grade of D on that mouse study, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss it entirely.
Note: those with certain up-regulated CBS genes may have sensitivity to sulfur donor supplements like NAC. For more on that, take a look at: Why sulfur and the CBS genes are on my nutrition radar.
This is personal preference, as some people will find theanine too calming to take before a night out, but, in my experience, it’s a nice nootropic to use socially that also helps mitigate some of alcohol’s negative effects. Just 50 mg of L-theanine has been shown to increase alpha brain waves, which are the creative, feel good brain waves. I like to think of theanine as an “active calming agent,”meaning it’s effects are mellow, but also up-lifting. Assuming I’ve had plenty of rest, 100 mg of L-theanine on an empty stomach before going out hits me just right, and as an added bonus, it appears theanine aids in helping the body produce glutathione, which as we’ve established above, our livers are going to need plenty of as the big night out progresses.4
Side note: if theanine makes you sleepy, try pairing with some coffee or tea. Most nootropic blogs consider caffeine and theanine as a natural combination.
Alcohol and its toxic byproduct acetaldehyde weaken the immune system.5 As a result, I also start the night with Vitamin D, which has been shown to boost the immune system. I take about 2,000 IU of Vitamin D before going out.6 I take Vitamin D, or at least monitor levels, under normal circumstances anyway, but I am especially vigilant if I am on getting on a plane or having drinks.
Buffered Vitamin C
Ahh, Vitamin C, the much maligned (Vitamin C has many haters), but also very effective antioxidant. I don’t think for a second that Vitamin C will prevent or cure the common cold, but I do have tremendous faith in Vitamin C’s ability to mop up free radicals. Vitamin C, or absorbic acid, is known as a “scavenger antioxidant,” meaning its job is to soak up and neutralize cellular bad guys.67 For example, I use a Vitamin C shower filter because the Vitamin C absorbs and neutralizes all the chlorine and other crap in the water.
Vitamin C also raises glutathione levels, hence my 2,000 mg dose.8 I will also take another 1,000 mg before heading off to bed. A word of caution with sourcing Vitamin C: most ascorbic acid comes from China, where the quality controls are not as strict as in the US, so be careful about where you buy your Vitamin C. For a primer on how to find good quality Vitamin C that doesn’t contain heavy metal toxicity, take a look at my blog All Vitamin C isn’t created equal. I take buffered Vitamin C because it is far less acidic than non-mineral bound ascorbic acid and it will help replenish mineral stores that are depleted when we drink alcohol.
We talked about Vitamin C as a scavenger antioxidant that mops up free radicals, right? Well, with a belly full of booze, and a liver under stress, adding to the list of supplements that absorb toxins isn’t a bad idea. It’s for this reason that I will pop a little bit of activated charcoal when I have had a night out.
Why activated charcoal?
Some studies have shown that Activated Charcoal is ineffective at absorbing alcohol, others are more promising, but alcohol isn’t necessarily the target. The target is acetaldehyde, and other alcohol toxins. There is some evidence indicating that activated charcoal could help absorb acetaldehyde in particular.
The problem with activated charcoal is that it can’t be taken within two hours of any of the other supplements I mention in this post, so you’ll need a time window devoted to the charcoal and clay if you plan to add it to your stack.
Note: some people will experience stomach discomfort with magnesium supplements, proceed with caution.
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it causes you to excrete fluids at an accelerated pace. As you’re doing all that peeing, one of the essential minerals that leaves your body at an alarming rate is magnesium, a mineral our bodies need for over 300 biochemical reactions.8 In order to keep up with the loss of magnesium, I supplement and take 500mg before bed. Magnesium is a regular supplement for me even when I’m not drinking, as it is so crucial to energy production and sleep regulation. Magnesium is also the co-factor for the enzyme Aldehyde dehydrogenase (AD) which I discuss in the genetics section below.
Methyl B Vitamin Complex
This is another class of Vitamin you lose when you drink: B Vitamins. It makes sense when you think about it, as B Vitamins are water soluble, they are also prone to loss via alcohol’s diuretic effect.9
Only applicable if you eat junk food before bed, and not effective if you’ve opted for the charcoal option.
Ok, so who are we kidding? You had a number of drinks, you’re also going to eat something you shouldn’t, and likely right before bed. In my case this weekend, I absolutely destroyed a gluten free pizza. To lessen the impact from eating junk, and especially a whole bunch of low quality cheese, I took a digestive enzyme to help my body break down and absorb whatever nutrients my gluten free pizza had to offer.
As an aside, I can’t recommend Via 313 Pizza in Austin enough if you’re drunk (or sober) and looking for a regular, or gluten free pie. These guys rock.
The next day
Curcumin is a good alternative to an aspirin for the next morning. It’s not a good idea to take while drinking because some mouse models show that at certain doses it can speed up the liver damage caused by alcohol.10 The standard advice, even from many doctors, is to pop Ibuprofen before heading off to bed after a night of drinking. Ibuprofen, and other NSAID drugs will harm your microbiome, increase the risk of stomach bleeding, which further taxes the liver, and in the case of certain genotypes, may cause an allergic reaction.1112 NSAID drugs also lower levels of an enzyme known as diamine oxidase, which our bodies use to clear histamine. Don’t take NSAID drugs unless you absolutely have to.
For more, take a look at our AOC1 gene page.
As a proven anti-inflammatory, curcumin offers a nice alternative to NSAIDs, and it’s good for your gut. In our post, Has curcumin been proven in human studies? We give curcumin a Science Grade of 4 stars as an anti-inflammatory. I also like curcumin because there is preliminary evidence that it increases levels of superoxide dismutase (an important antioxidant made by our bodies), and I have a homozygous SNP for SOD2 A16V.
What about Hangover “multivitamins?”
You may be wondering, why not just get all of these ingredients in one pill? For example, products like drinkSmart and DrinkWell make blends that contain many of the ingredients I list in this post. For some, these products may be good solutions for the occasional night out, however, I steer clear of these formulas because many of their ingredients are low quality. The first thing that jumps out is the Vitamin C, which isn’t USP grade. Next you look at the B vitamins and see they’re using large doses of folic acid, which is cheap B9 that those with MTHFR SNPs won’t handle well.
Rather than take supplements from a brand that appears to be cutting corners on quality in favor of margin, I go with brands I trust who are transparent about their sourcing and manufacturing practices.
The Genetics of alcohol metabolism
Since this is the Gene Food blog, we should also point out that how we react to alcohol is also influenced by our genetics. The gene ALDH2 encodes the enzyme Aldehyde dehydrogenase (AD) which is the second step in the pathway which breaks down alcohol, AD converts acetaldehyde to acetic acid. As I discuss above acetaldehyde is the molecule associated with a lot of the negative symptoms of alcohol such as hangovers and skin flushing.
So where does genetics come into it? Well the risk ‘A’ allele of the SNP rs671 in ALDH2 is associated with reduced AD activity making carriers more likely to experience alcohol flush, and bad hangover symptoms even with a relatively low intake of alcohol. This SNP is especially important in those of East Asian descent who commonly lack the sister gene ALDH1 completely, leading to an already increased level of alcohol intolerance. So even with all the preparation in the world you might still have to deal with that hangover.
Well, there you have it, the supplement regimen I use to combat the dreaded hangover. Of course, I take all these supplements with plenty of water, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear that drinking lots of water will perhaps be the biggest factor in avoiding a morning from hell. I also try to work out on an empty stomach immediately after I wake up. This gets the blood flowing and helps me sweat out the toxins that are still lingering in my system. My goal isn’t to set any records, I am just looking to do 20-30 minutes of mild exercise before I sit on the couch for the rest of the day.